“I buy Azam products because I know if the company is strong the team will also be strong” Polopera explains as we sit drinking Azam Cola, watching Azam FC playing live on Azam TV. Polopera is the vice-chairman of an Azam FC supporters branch located in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and this consumer rationalisation begins to help us understand how supporters of Azam embrace the commercialisation of football in the country.
Azam FC, Tanzania’s 2014-15 league champions, was created from scratch by the East African powerhouse Bakhresa Group, whose activities span from marine transport to ice-cream. The team’s motto - ‘Better team, better products’ - demonstrates their shameless marketing model. Football in Tanzania has traditionally been synonymous with the national rivalry between historic clubs Simba and Yanga. Azam are disturbing this status quo.
With their state-of-the-art sports complex and transnational scope, they are hoping to emulate the European football everyone watches on TV. Despite mass support neither Simba nor Yanga have stadiums of their own. “They’re slowing us down!” exclaims Polepera, reflecting the view that Azam represent a positive movement in the direction of mpira wa kisasa or modern football. Following a 4-0 thrashing of Yanga, Azam supporters adopted the slogan 4G, which as well as signifying four goals also has connotations of latest mobile phone technology and modernity.Unlike Azam, which is led directly by the Bakhresa Group and a proportion of the company’s profit is bumped back into the football team, Simba and Yanga are supporter owned membership associations. Polopera laments the corruption and politics that this system engenders: “they only care about getting into government”. Following independence, football was highlighted as an area of culture by the socialist government in their mission to develop a sense of nationhood which transcends ethnicity. Although no longer socialist, the independence party continues to govern, and these political connections remain. The mass support for these teams across Tanzania’s dispersed population of roughly 50 million people can be effectively mobilised for political gain.
Polopera believes that whereas the historic clubs are “not about the game” and are too wrapped up in politics, Azam are more concerned with football itself. The name of his supporter branch - ‘Specialist Football’ - is intended to make this point. Ironically, although the club exists for the purpose of the Bakhresa Group and has blatant commercial interests, their resources enable them to perform efficiently and to dream of success at a continental level, and it is in this sense that Polopera believes they’re more “about” the football. Azam supporters are vastly outnumbered by those of Simba and Yanga. At one match a banner was unveiled depicting a wealthy man carrying a bundle of banknotes flanked by two penniless women on either side - representing their rivals - which read ‘Escape and come!’. Such blatant iconography encouraging supporters to switch alliances for monetary reasons is understandably shocking at a time when the increased commercialisation of the game is criticised.
However in a country presently in a state of semi-austerity the financial stability of Azam is highly appealing. The policies of the current president, John Pombe Magufuli, have inadvertently led to a sizeable decrease in the circulation of money. Support for Azam symbolises a reliance on the economic stability of market forces over that provided by the government. As Polopera says; “Azam do not falter”, and the same cannot be said of Simba and Yanga who rely on their members for support. Polopera’s rationalisation that buying Azam products contributes to the Azam “community” and helps to strengthen the team is widespread. Being part of this community also has other benefits. Formal employment opportunities are limited for the majority of people, and Azam are in a position to offer employment, whether in one of their many factories or in the club’s sports complex itself. The potential for employment is ranked as a key reason for supporting the club by the supporters themselves, demonstrating how Azam are seen as providing where the government does not. Undoubtedly comparing the Against Modern Football movement and football in Tanzania is difficult. For one thing sanitisation of atmosphere isn’t an issue in Tanzanian stadiums: drumming troupes start playing before the match begins and the dancing throughout is ceaseless. In the country’s biggest footballing clash between Simba and Yanga, the Simba fans celebrations following their team’s equaliser midday through the second half - letting off flares and general pandemonium - continued in exactly the same vein right through to their eventual winner in the final minute and out into the street afterwards. Nevertheless parallels can be drawn between a corporate team like Azam and similar clubs in Europe. For example RB Leipzig are criticised for existing solely for the benefit of the Red Bull Group. However in contrast to the negative reaction to RB Leipzig among other German clubs - illustrated by the Borussia Dortmund fans throwing a severed pigs head onto the pitch - Azam are respected by their opponents. Their economic “self-reliance” is often cited as worthy of merit and a positive movement in the direction of modern football. Following Azam, Simba are currently negotiating the purchase of a majority stake in the club by long-term supporter Mohammed Dewji, CEO of MeTL Group, one of Bakhresa Group’s biggest market competitors.The Tanzanian case makes it clear that social contextualisation is crucial in order to better understand how processes of commercialisation are conceptualised by the supporters themselves. A similar emphasis on social contextualisation has been applied to RB Leipzig who claim to be the saviours of football in East Germany where, since reunification, they have largely been economically inferior to their Western counterparts. Although Tanzania’s enthusiasm for Modern Football is socially specific, an increased understanding of how processes of commercialisation are negotiated and embraced across local landscapes is necessary as the global tide shows no signs of stemming.
This article, written by Adam Rodgers Johns (@don_darm) was originally published in Stand AMF issue 22.